"Structuralism" and "constructionism" are terms that lead to a direct association with the word building. Building, as a verb in the gerund: “construct by putting parts or material together over a period”; and building, as a noun, in the edifice and structure sense of the word.
The intention of this text is to build (in a metaphorical sense) correlation between the views of Michel Foucault, Stuart Hall, Laura Mulvey and Betham’s Panopticon building (in a literal sense); and bring their arguments to our present time. First things first; let’s start with Foucault’s concept of discourse:
[By discourse, Foucault meant] ‘a group of statements which provide a language for talking about – a way of representing the knowledge about – a particular topic at a particular historical moment… Discourse is about the production of knowledge through language But… since all social practices entail meaning, and meanings shape and influence what we do – our conduct – all practices have a discursive aspect’ (Hall, 1992, p.291)
At first glance, the notion of discourse could be mistaken by the precepts of semiotics. Although they are, indeed, closely related, for Foucault the semiotic theory lacked one crucial aspect: the notion of the historical moment.
Like Barthes and other semioticians, Foucault was a constructionist; however, his primary concern was with the production of knowledge and meaning not through language, but through discourse – and within a particular historical context. In his view, there is no such thing as an ‘absolute truth’, as he did not believe that the same phenomenon would be found across different historical periods. He thought that, in each period, discourse produced forms of knowledge, objects, subjects, and practices of education, which differed radically from period to period, with no necessary continuity between them. (Hall)
Indeed, looking back on the history of mankind, we can see that a lot (not to say every) of the once considered ‘absolute truths’ fell apart with the advent of science, philosophy, technology, etc. Heck, we used to think that the Earth ended on an abysm and that ‘hysteria’ could be cured with vibrators . It is non-sense to believe that there is such a thing as a given – and unchangeable - truth. Or isn’t?
To actually learn, as a great professor (to remain anonymous) once said, we have to question everything and everybody. We cannot believe every thing we read, or see, or listen. One has to question: “Why trust someone else’s beliefs over your own?” Knowledge empowers people. As Sir Francis Bacon once claimed, “scientia potentia est" - and Foucault couldn’t agree more, as he focused on the relationship between knowledge and power, and how power operated within what he called an institutional apparatus and its technologies (techniques).
Knowledge linked to power, not only assumes the authority of ‘the truth’ but has the power to make itself true. (…) Truth isn’t outside power… Truth is a thing of this world: it is produced only by virtue of multiple forms of constraint. And it induces regular effects of power. (Foucault, 1980, p.131)
For the sake of this argument, consider Foucault’s statements on truth and power accurate. Now, let’s dig deeper on the notion of power. Hall summarizes Foucault’s ideas on the topic:
We tend to think of power as always radiating in a single direction – from top to bottom – and coming from a particular source – the sovereign, the state, the ruling class and so on. For Foucault, however, power does not ‘function in the form of a chain’ – it circulates. It is never monopolized by one centre. It is deployed and exercised through a net-like organization’ (Foucault, 1980, p. 98). This suggests that we are all, to some degree, caught up in its circulation – oppressors and oppressed. Power relations permeate all levels of social existence and are therefore to be found operating at every site of social life.
And, again the man, Foucault, in The Eye of Power: “The summit and the lower elements of the hierarchy stand in a relationship of mutual support and conditioning, a mutual ‘hold’ (power as a mutual and indefinite ‘blackmail’).”
Done, for now, with the quoting, let’s try to place these ideas in our reality: So, power has not a single direction; and it does not go only from top to bottom. Power, as Foucault puts, it’s a circle. The ‘sovereign,' ‘the state,' ‘the ruling class’ needs the ‘bottom’ of the hierarchy just as much (or maybe even more) than the poor mortals need them.
To reign, a King must be recognized and respected as such. But, at the time – and, still, nowadays - few had that awareness. Sure, some royalty was beheaded (RIP Marie Antoinette), and thrones were conquered, but people always had the weird tendency of being condescending towards the ruling classes. Why put up with corrupt leaders, and stuck-up nobles for so long?
Today, with the so-called democracy and the voting system, politicians have to kiss-ass of the population to ‘rise to power.' People are now fully responsible to whom they give authority to – and they also have the means to revoke it. So why do we continue to victimize ourselves, thinking that our leaders are the ‘bad guys’; the ‘bad decision-makers’; the ‘evil of the world’; if the only reason why they are our leaders is that we made them in the first place?
On The Eye of Power, Foucault describes a conversation between himself, Jean-Pierre Barou and Michelle Perrot. Among others topics, they discuss the role of ‘opinion,' and the power of the ‘gaze,' on the eighteenth-century population:
It's an illusion of almost all of the eighteenth-century reformers who credited opinion with considerable potential force. Since opinion could only be good, being the immediate consciousness of the whole social body, they thought people would become virtuous by the simple fact of being observed. (…) And failed to see that these media would necessarily be under the command of economic-political interests. (…) They believed opinion would be inherently just, that it would spread of its own accord, that it would be a sort of democratic surveillance. (Foucault, “Power/Knowledge,” p.161)
Perrot claims that the thinkers at the time ‘misunderstood the difficulty they would have in making their system take effect’ and that ‘they didn’t realize that there would always be ways of slipping through their net, or that resistances would have a role to play’. Then, he goes on talking about her study on the revolts against surveillance (gaze), and Foucault’s follow on the discussion about the resistances of Bentham’s Panopticon.
Keeping these arguments and Mulvey’s psychoanalysis of ‘scopophilia’ and ‘voyeurism’ in Visual and Other Pleasures in mind, let’s shift, again, to our reality:
Against the statements made by Foucault and Perrot, people now deliberately put themselves under constant surveillance and are more-than-willing to be someone else’s object of voyeurism. We all want our 15 minutes of fame (or I-don’t-know-how-many Likes and Shares); we want to be looked at; we want to be the actors of Sternberg’s and Hitchcock’s movies; we want to be the obsession of Peeping Tom’s. And that is completely insane.
Instagram pictures, Facebook profiles, iPhone fingerprinting, GPS phones, Internet search tracing is only a few examples of our lunatic behavior of bluntly giving all our personal information to anyone who has Internet access. At a first glance, all this modern tools (Google Maps can find the nearest best restaurant – just give him your exact location, or Tinder can find the perfect romantic match for you – just provide your address, phone number, and recent pictures) seems so benefic to our daily lives that we seize to notice how dangerous they really are.
“Look, there’s that lovely kid, Mark Zuckerberg, offering you a lovely network to connect with your lovely friends.” And at what cost? Oh, a bargain: Just all of your personal information – to make him earn gazillions of dollars by selling all the data to the advertisement, Google, and whoever is willing to pay the highest price.
We are now under constant surveillance – and, worse: we don’t even care anymore. Never mind all the cameras everywhere; it is George Orwell’s 1984 in the 21st century. “Heck, if we have cameras, we can now be movie stars! Why not tape ourselves and upload it on the Internet?” Now, everybody seems to have ‘scopophilia’ to some degree: What else can explain the amount of ‘likes’ given to pseudo-celebrities online profiles; or the sales rates of weekly tabloids?
In this crazy-surveilled-gazed-uber-exposed-narcissistic-society, we are all voyeurs in the comfort of our couches, watching some ‘reality’ television, as other people look at our ‘real’ lives on some random website.